| OUSTER BLUSTER: Shanties go up in smoke as evicted settlers along Beleghata’s circular canal set fire to their homes during Tuesday morning’s clean-up drive . Picture by Aloke Mitra
Time: 10.45 am. Four boys run out of two shanties that were, presumably, their home just a few hours ago. As soon as they leave, the structures explode into fireballs. An hour later, fire-fighters are battling similar blazes raging across the western bank of Beleghata canal.
In a display of intense frustration and helpless rage, Beleghata circular canal’s evicted settlers took delight in making bonfires of their own homes on Tuesday, before handing them over to the authorities to be razed.
By the end of the day, they had “taken over” two inadequately-protected fire-tenders, while the fires they had started engulfed the shanties in which they had spent Monday night. Children sprayed each other with water from the fire-tenders, while others danced atop the vehicles.
It all started at 10.45 am, almost two hours after Calcutta’s biggest clean-up drive since Operation Sunshine in November 1996 got underway, with the four boys, barely into their teens, scampering off the scene.
Just like the fire they had kindled, the emotions they sparked were as infectious, and Beleghata canal resembled a crematorium when the law-enforcing agencies had done their job of cleaning up a major portion of one of the city’s main waterways. The four boys fled into the crowd that saw pay-loaders tear into their homes, leaving a flumoxed police force struggling to realise what they had done.
“Someone must be cooking,” was the reaction to the first wisps of smoke from a senior police officer overseeing things on the spot on Tuesday. By the time he realised what they had on their hands, the fire had spread to many more shanties. The cold, dry winter wind helped fan the flames.
A gas pipeline, bringing fuel from Kalyani to the Greater Calcutta Gas Supply Corporation unit, protruded above the surface at a few points, adding to the threat. By the time the panic-stricken police had ordered fire-tenders (13 in number) to be pressed into service, over 150 of the 3,500-odd shanties demolished were on fire.
Though the gas supply was cut off to prevent a major conflagration, it did not stop the flames from devouring six fully-mature trees on the western bank of the canal. Causing more chaos was a crowd of about 2,000 people that came charging at the law-enforcers from behind the smoke-and-firescreen. Stones were also pelted from behind the gates of a shut factory.
The fire was brought under control only around 12.30 pm, but the ordeal was far from over for the firemen. A few minutes after 1 pm, a few structures — far from those initially on fire — were seen up in flames.
As firemen targeted them, a fire broke out in another cluster of shanties further away. This cat-and-mouse game — with the firemen chasing the flames and the policemen chasing the arsonists — continued for some time till the pursuers gave up.
They just waited as structure after structure was set on fire, much to the delight of the crowd of evicted settlers that had gathered on both banks of the canal. It burst into applause as soon as it saw a new shanty on fire. Momentarily, the wails of homeless women were drowned by the whoops of delight.
But people with houses on the eastern bank of the canal had nothing to cheer about. Worried that the flames could lick — and destroy — their homes, they busied themselves throwing bucketsful of water on the walls to arrest the fire.
Deputy commissioner (eastern suburban division) Sanjay Mukherjee, present on the spot, said the arson was the handiwork of a few “frustrated” individuals. “We have arrested 12 people for the arson,” he added.
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